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Drones ahead?

mendiola MARK


Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer sees the state potentially taking the lead in converting military drone technology into commercial unmanned aircraft applications, but he worries the Idaho National Laboratory’s lucrative nuclear research and development projects are at risk.

During a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Pocatello, Sayer noted Idaho has the 46th largest economy in the nation and essentially zero R&D funding, putting it at a significant disadvantage with competitive, wealthier states.

The state’s three universities and industry are cooperating to concentrate on work force development, which is difficult to accomplish but crucial for Idaho’s economy, said Sayer, who has headed the state’s commerce department since October 2011.

“We’ve got to find a way to train people industries need. It’s the single most important thing to do to move the state forward. We’re coming together at an unprecedented level,” Sayer said. “There’s going to be a shortage in the nation and the world of a qualified work force. That’s not lost on Idaho.”

Idaho can capitalize on its existing assets to develop unmanned aircraft that can be used in agriculture, wildlife management, transportation and many other fields, Sayer said. The INL has the second largest authorized flying area for drones. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) considers INL its leading test site for unmanned aircraft.

Idaho can move faster than any state in developing an unmanned aircraft industry and still protect citizen privacy rights, Sayer said, mentioning there are more than 100 companies engaged in the state’s robust firearms industry.

Since last year, Sayer has chaired the Idaho Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission forged by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to support and protect the INL and the state’s nuclear energy industry. In 1995, Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE reached an agreement settling a lawsuit filed by the state to prevent shipment of spent nuclear fuel to the INL for storage.

Otter “knows the political risks stepping into this arena,” Sayer said, praising his foresight in initiating the LINE Commission. “It was an environmental issue, but now it is an economic issue. We’re actually getting involved in the nuclear industry to make sure what happens comes to Idaho. … Things have changed in 30 years.”

As of 2010, the INL accounted for 24,000 jobs and a $3.5 billion economic impact. “None of us in eastern Idaho wants to see that go away,” he said.

Sayer said the Idaho Cleanup Project, administered by CH2M-WG Idaho, is one of the most successful cleanup projects in the nation. From the 1950s to the 1970s, waste management at the INL site consisted of dumping, isolating, diluting and minimizing exposure, he said. Now, spent fuel onsite is carefully managed by using top technology, he said.

Greg Gunter, right, owner of Rave Communications, converses with Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer following a Rotary luncheon.


Based on the Center for Advanced Energy Studies model, Idaho has invited regional governors to partner in addressing spent nuclear fuel issues, Sayer said. CAES is an ongoing research and education partnership involving the INL, Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho. Its $17 million, 55,000 square foot building is in Idaho Falls.

“We cannot proceed from an energy standpoint without embracing nuclear,” Sayer said, stressing nuclear energy does not create carbon emissions, and other states are aggressively pursuing it. “This is going to be and has to be part of our future.”

Utilities are paying the federal government $1.2 billion annually to manage spent nuclear fuel stored at various sites. “The bottom line is other states will help (with storage), but they want the research to go with it,” Sayer said, emphasizing Idaho has nuclear energy expertise lacking in other states.

Addressing the state’s economic development efforts, Sayer said, “There are a lot of positive things happening. The glass is not half full. It’s overflowing. We’re seeing growth across a number of sectors.” Many projects under the radar are “coming to the top and starting to pop.”

Chobani’s construction of the world’s largest yogurt plant near Twin Falls has spawned a ripple effect and renewed sense of momentum in the Magic Valley, Sayer said. Three other food processing projects creating 900 to 1,000 jobs also have targeted the region.

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